There was a bit of noise out of the Independent Spirit Awards this past Saturday surrounding the idea of ‘independent’ or ‘low budget’ and what that means. A twenty million dollar budget and a huge promotional machine behind a film seems, to me anyway, to strip away a little of what makes a film ‘independent.’
That said, I feel it is important as a film nut and a horror genre’ guy to seek out truly independent work as often as I can. Not just in horror, but in general. With that in mind, here are ten independent/low-budget horror films worth checking out of you haven’t already. In every case, these are films I enjoyed and want to champion in some way or other. If you saw/see them and don’t like them, that’s fine. I figure it is better to seek out content and have an opinion rather than not make that effort. Onto part one of the list (in no particular order):
Lightning Bug (2004)
Robert Green Hall, who went onto work on Buffy The Vampire Slayer (TV Series) and the Laid To Rest films, started with this charming coming of age story about a horror obsessed young man (Green Graves – played by Bret Harrison) with big dreams of leaving his small Alabama town to pursue special effects in Hollywood.
The story is semi-autobiographical/fictional (sounds weird but makes sense when you see it) and follows his path contending with crazy church types, a spaced-out but caring mother, supportive but clueless friends, mysterious video store girl (Angevin – played by That 70′s Show’s Laura Prepon) and a terrible, scary ongoing ordeal with his stepfather. His artistic talent and drive propel the story into familiar plot territory but it is the thrilling, often sad elements that make it a special film. Green’s journey and his passions are familiar to many of us and it is the sincerity and care by which they are handled that make it worthwhile.
Abram’s Hand (2011)
I was lucky enough to get a chance to spend time with a collection of actors, producers and filmmakers last fall at the Scarlet Waters film event here in Austin. The event included a bunch of great shorts (including the fantastic ‘Desert Road Kill’ with Alejandro Patino) but the highlight was absolutely James Christopher’s full length film, Abram’s Hand. Like some of you, I was slightly disappointed by Kevin Smith’s Red State. To me, it was a great concept with less than great execution. Abram’s Hand tackles some of that same subject matter (crazed cult like church, lengths they will go etc) in the context of a weekend camping retreat between reuniting friends in a small Texas town.
Christopher executes the conflict/threat in a much cleaner and much more sinister way – we might think we know the direction the film is going but as the events unfold and things escalate, it becomes much more dire and ultimately hopeless. The resolution of the film (punctuated in one scene in the back of a car) is so absolutely chilling that I still can’t shake it months later. This one might not be easy to find, but, is worth checking out.
A Horrible Way To Die (2010)
This might fit more as a thriller than straight out horror, but in any classification, is a damned brilliant, dark film that I dearly love. One of the impressions I took away from it was the concept of different ways people die beyond just losing their life. Another I thought this was well addressed in was Adam Green’s Frozen – the scene in the car, looking out the window hammers this idea home (being vague on purpose).
You don’t have to be dead to die. In ‘A Horrible Way To Die’, Sarah (Amy Seimetz) is attempting to put her life back together with the help of group therapy, support from coworkers and a steady hand in the face of a terrible back story. She is taking small steps and even builds a tentative relationship with a groupmate (Joe Swanburg) but as things start to trend to better, normal, she is met with the reality that her ex-boyfriend (serial killer we see escaped from custody – played by AJ Bowen) is on his way back to find her. Saying much more would ruin things but I will say that it is beautifully shot (I mean just lovely to look at), well paced film that really hit me and stayed around well after the fact.
The Burrowers (2008)
I am nothing if not a big dork for practical effects – I get all childlike and giddy at the prospect of using them as much as possible in film. It is one of the reasons I really love J.T. Perry’s The Burrowers, but certainly not the only one. The story centers around the development of colonies in the American west in the 1870′s and what unintended consequences come from wiping out buffalo populations and brutalizing native indian tribes. Consequences, more specifically, in the form of vicious underground creatures and their new need to feed from a different source of food. The implied politics of the story are there, but I never felt as though it was purely a political film by any means.
The Burrowers is a thrilling creature horror film that says a lot about man’s relationship with nature and nature’s relationship with man. Save for some annoying digital blood use, the practical creature effects are fantastic and really add a dynamic to the film that is hard to compartmentalize. Also, the cinematography is breathtaking – wide shots across the plains are just remarkable. If you like creature horror and can change gears to a different era, The Burrowers is absolutely worth your time.
Aggression Scale (2012)
I’ve written in the past about the ‘stick on your ribs’ or the ‘glue’ idea when it comes to movies and last year’s Aggression Scale certainly fits that bill. It is a film that I quite liked upon the first viewing and was still thinking about a few weeks after the fact. The story centers around a blended family on the run (or relocating, depending on how you read the ‘family adventure’ spin from the father) from some seriously bad dudes (including Derek Mears and Dana Ashbrook) looking for stolen money for their boss Bellavance (played by the ever grand Ray Wise).
The son of the family sits at the very peak top end of a physiological measurement tool for aggressive behavior and this, mixed with his autism, makes for a powder keg waiting to explode. I don’t want to give away more than I already have but sufficed to say, this film balances a steady hand equally with thoughts about bonds of loyalty and reality through the filter of mental illness along with utterly palatable tension and vicious, justified violence. It is damned brilliant and a lot of fun.
Part two coming this week.